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The Culture of Overwork

I wasn’t always a therapist. It’s been ten years since I started grad school to begin this path, six years since I opened my private practice as a part-time operation, and T-minus one week until I begin working as a full-time  therapist for Bliss Counselling… in addition to maintaining my current roster in my own practice. Up until November, I was still working by day as a technical writer for Waterloo Region’s single biggest industry: the high-tech world of IT and software development.

The Regions is known as “Silicon Valley North” for good reason. Global businesses open development offices here because the University of Waterloo’s programming creates some of the best-of-the-best engineers and developers. Incubators and startups have been a part of the landscape since well before I moved here to go to UW as a bright-eyed undergrad in 1986. (For the record, I sent my first email in 1985; in 1986 when I became a UW student, I was given my own student email/internet account, and I have been online ever since.) I have been working in the local field as a writer since before I left my undergrad to become a tech writer full time, circa 1992. I survived the dot com boom and bust cycle, watching more startups come out of the woodwork in a five year window than I can count, and most of them fail within that same window.

I have worked for a LOT of companies in the intervening years before hitting a burnout in 2007 that wasn’t going to be fixed by simply jumping ship to a new company. At that point I came to realize something that has since influenced my therapeutic work with clients coming out of IT companies in the area: things rarely get better, because the mindset underlying many employers’ expectations is one deeply rooted in a deadly combination of aggressive, do-anything, self-sacrificing startup culture mentality, and the pervasive  requirements driven by shareholders and investors to maximize profits while minimizing cost margins. “We need you to do more with less, and for less” is a bottom-line narrative that benefits a corporate quarterly report, but often at the cost of those very-human resources expected to deliver products and services under often unrealistic deadlines.

Sometimes companies recognize the outrageous demands placed on employees, and try to help by offering incentives like cash bonuses, time in lieu, or benefits that include EAP access or incentives to join specific “wellness programs”. These often look good on paper, and at least in the short term can, in fact, bring some ease to the beleaguered workforce. But the bigger problem remains the internal culture of excessive expectation. The last job I held as a tech writer, I failed out of spectacularly in part because I couldn’t buy into the degree of self-sacrifice that had other team-mates working 80 hour weeks, driving from homes in other cities on weekends or logging in for hours from home at night to finish projects that were desperately understaffed *by design*.

This was not the first such company *I* had worked for with that kind of environment, not even close. It’s not unusual that when profits start to fall (note: when the profit margin merely decreases, NOT “when we actively start to lose money”), corporate management will cut the workforce by significant numbers YET STILL REQUIRE the same delivery of product and service without adjusting downward the volume of work to be executed by remaining team members.  But pushing back on those unrealistic delivery requirements? Is generally not only not encouraged, but sometimes actively punished:

“Nothing can alleviate the stress of overwork except working less. Like the road signs say, only sleep cures fatigue. We need to be reminded of this because tired long-haul drivers can be deluded into thinking that coffee, a can of Mother or an upbeat bit of music might help them stay awake. For the madly overworked, we need reminding that the only cure for working too much is to stop. It’s as simple as that.

In the last month or so I’ve had several clients raise the issue of overwork with their managers, with the following results. One had a consultant brought in to assess her team’s workloads against their position descriptions. Each member was found to be working at between 130 and 160% of their load. So the load was reset and anyone working at below 150% was told they weren’t pulling their weight.

Another workplace appointed an organisational psychologist to assess the team’s interpersonal relationships as a way of responding to a workload complaint. As a result, my client was told his personal commitment to reasonable working hours was putting his team at risk and he was put on a program of performance management. Another was simply told not to come in again.”

I hear the same stories over and over again from IT clients: often they want to seek therapists who are NOT with their EAP because they have come to mistrust the EAP motives and methodologies. EAPs are selected by the corporation, and are tied to benefits provisions, themselves provided by other corporations with a goal of paying out as little money as possible for a process aimed solely at returning the worker to functional/employable status as fast as possible. Therapists working for EAPs are often hamstrung in that regard, as we are required to employ short-term, solution-focused approaches as bandaids to symptomologies that may or may not themselves be rooted in different or deeper locations than we are allowed to explore in 6-8 sessions. That’s not to say there’s something wrong with short-term, solution-focused approaches. On the contrary, they’re very effective ways of developing tools and strengths with struggling clients. But when it’s the ONLY tool allowed on the board, there’s a limit to what we or our clients can achieve. And therefore, many EAP clients in high-stress fields often come in and out of therapy as the same problems continue to crop up again and again.

The problem isn’t the client. The problem isn’t the therapy. The problem is the workplace culture that often deliberately cripples its people by normalizing outrageous demands and rewarding the willingness to sacrifice everything outside of the workplace in the name of the corporation’s reputation or bottom line. And in Waterloo Region, that is an ENORMOUS problem. It’s not just one company who works that way, it’s the endemic mindset across a great many of them.

So it behooves us as therapists working in the Region, and working with clients who work in the high-tech industry, to be VERY aware of two particular issues:

  1. stress and anxiety related to job performance are HUGE factors for a very great many of our client base
  2. there is currently no effective way to push back against unrealistic corporate demands, nor is coaching a client to consider employment elsewhere likely to be a guaranteed change so long as the potential job field remains limited to IT

What’s left, then?

Normalizing the idea that this is what the industry itself has normalized. It’s been my experience over almost thirty years in IT that it’s rare to find companies who *genuinely* allow and encourage a balanced quality of life without at least hedging bets (“Well, it’s only like to get REALLY bad around project release time, ad that only happens a few times a year”).  We can encourage clients to have conversations with their bosses about setting reasonable expectations—and to me, being EXPECTED to persistently work 150% OVER one’s job description is not reasonable—but be aware the likelihood of effecting sustainable change without threatening employment status is realistically slim. Work with clients to change how they relate to the inherent stresses of their chosen profession.  American feminist and author bell hooks, in her book All About Love: New Visions, wrote:

“Work occupies much of our time. Doing work we hate assaults our self-esteem and self-confidence. Yet most workers cannot do the work they love. But we can all enhance our capacity to live purposefully by learning how to experience satisfaction in whatever work we do. We find that satisfaction by giving any job total commitment. […] Doing a job well, even if we do not enjoy what we are doing, means that we leave it with a feeling of well-being, our self-esteem intact. That self-esteem aids us when we go in search of a job that can be more fulfilling.”

Help clients learn to be realistic about what’s demanded of them, and work on finding some kind of balance with the rest of their lives. Help teach them how to create and sustain relationship intimacy in the face of their worklife demands, and work with them to develop effective emotional language to communicate with intimate partners authentically and realistically about the impact of their work on their availability to non-worklife demands.

Sometimes the best we can do is help teach swimmers how to stay afloat. Teach them to recognize the signs of exhaustion, but also be compassionate and educated in your own understanding about the realities of the industry they work in. IT is a wide ocean, and it takes a special swimmer to make it effectively from one side to the other. Being an effective swimming coach also means being aware of the conditions of the ocean we’re swimming in.

It’s not always a pretty reality, but it’s the reality of living and working in Silicon Valley North.

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